The Rainy Season: “one good minute in a day with one thousand four hundred and forty minutes they had to survive”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

Indira had said I was “crazy!” to walk alone to the train station—especially so early in the morning—but I’d insisted, and now she was genuinely relieved that I’d made it. She turned to her students and said, “You see now why he is Mr. Strange?”

Ha-ha-ha. I didn’t reply because it was too early for banter.

Maya, Gita, Farid and Ridwan had brought the supplies we’d purchased during yesterday’s shopping excursion. The schools I’d taught at in South Carolina, Florida, Korea and Germany all had large supply rooms. Maybe the shelves had been bare occasionally, but in reality I had never lacked anything important for my students. I also didn’t know the first thing about creating arts and crafts or performing The Lion King. Chyka, on the other hand, obviously knew about such matters. She just didn’t have any supplies. Indira had shared with me after our last visit to Bogor that The Lion King costumes that had been so adorable on Lucy and her classmates had been made from recycled Peter Pan costumes. Apparently Chyka had all sorts of talents. Her students recycled every project, craft and costume and used the same materials again and again.

Farid and Ridwan claimed artistic talents on my level, so we’d given free reign to Maya and Gita. I’d discovered that Maya isn’t nearly so quiet and reserved with a Visa card in hand. Of course it was my Visa. A partial list of the damage: crayons, markers, colored pencils, colored chalk, watercolors, yarn, fabric scraps, thread, burlap, clay, foil, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, string, straws, glass beads, wood beads, ink pads, sponges, stamps, glitter, cotton balls, foam, sequins, floral wire, white glue, glue sticks, fabric glue, wood glue, scissors, paintbrushes, foam brushes, clippers, copy paper, construction paper, stock paper, colored tissue paper, contact paper, cardboard, and sheets and sheets and sheets of fabric.

Whew.

Maya and Gita’s faces had been lit up the entire time. Gita, in her confusing Aussie accent, had said it was “a most fun adventure.” Farid and Ridwan had been sweating and out of breath just trying to keep up.

Now we lugged our loot onto the train platform.

“This will be fun on the mini-buses,” I said.

“Oh come on,” Indira said. “Becak will be more fun.”

“True.”

A moment later the platform began to tremble. It took a Herculean effort to get the school supplies on board the train before its doors closed. Some of the supplies were in normal shopping bags. Some were in large duffel bags. The fabrics, mostly. A few bulky items were in a cardboard box.

Ridwan said, “Why did we not hire a car?”

Indira began opening windows as the train left the station. “Ask Mr. Strange. The train is his idea.”

Ridwan is so literal. He looked right at me and said, “Why did we not hire a car?”

“I enjoy the ambiance and the ripe air on the train.”

“He also like to go first class,” Indira said. Then she smiled at me and motioned to a duffel bag she’d placed beneath an open window. “Your premium seat, sir.”

I sat on the duffel bag. “Thank you. When is the beverage service?”

Indira didn’t miss a beat. She reached into her purse and said, “Pepsi and Pocky sticks. Is there something else I can do for you, sir?”

I’m more likely to laugh during a root canal than I am to laugh at anything this early in the morning. Same goes for smiling. But on this morning I did both. I took the Pepsi and cookies and said, “First class. You weren’t kidding.”

I’d worn jeans and a polo shirt today, along with my Braves hat, sunglasses and Nike running shoes. Maybe I was traveling first class, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t dress casual and comfortable. Indira and her students had dressed casual as well.

Indira settled in for the long train ride on a second duffel bag. Plenty of passengers were staring at her. They’d probably never seen such exuberance on a train without seats. The train gathered speed and carried us away from Jakarta. A complex of tall buildings at the city’s edge disrupted the flow of air through the windows. In one instant it was smooth and quiet and in the next it was violent and loud, reminiscent of the thump-thump-thump you get when driving a car through a tunnel with a window down.

It was too loud for conversation. I was okay with that.

The tracks bent hard to the right and the acoustics changed again as we broke free of the city. The train snaked its way right, left, right again. The air became cooler and easier on our lungs as we made our way south through thick forests and across mountains and rivers. Indira’s students were like puppies in a pickup truck. Heads out the windows, tongues lolling to the side, hair flapping in the wind, tails wagging and drool everywhere.

The first stations along our route hadn’t awakened yet. A few passengers got off the train, but we didn’t pick up any new passengers. I was alert, of course. A fiftyish man in dirty work clothes had a pretty intense scowl. Maybe it was for me, or maybe not. His scowl didn’t overly concern me because I usually have one this early in the morning, too. He eventually left for a connecting car. That wasn’t the case with an older lady who took a noticeable interest in our group. Her hijab was olive green and it reminded me of army fatigues. A long, hard life had wrinkled and weathered her face—at least the parts of it that weren’t covered. Something about her made me wary. Her eyes, I think. They screamed disapproval.

Not at me.

Indira.

The train began to slow and Indira stood and spoke Bahasa to her students. She’d done her own shopping, apparently—though for what, I had no idea—and now she gave bags to each of her students. Indira also kept one bag for herself.

Some daily passengers took notice of the movement.

The older lady with the army fatigues hijab was no longer content to send nasty thoughts our way. She said a few harsh words to Indira. To her credit, Indira merely bowed and gave the lady a polite smile—and it struck me how effortlessly she moved through two vastly different worlds. Indira’s home was in Jakarta’s third ring, but her professional life was in Central Jakarta—and for that she was resented in one world, and dismissed in the other.

“What are you doing? Why is this woman angry?”

Indira didn’t reply.

Then the older lady began to shout at me, all belligerent. Now Indira replied. She and the older lady had a tense back-and-forth but when it was over the lady turned away from us with a disgusted humph. Score one for Indira.

“What was that about?”

“She think you are cute,” Indira said, straight-faced. “But I tell her you get the ugly face sometimes and I do not think she will like it.”

Maybe she fibbed with the translation?

But I didn’t need to ask again. I glanced out the window and immediately understood. Up ahead I could see low, crude structures with flat aluminum roofs held in place with piles of rubble. Kids sat on the rooftops, feet dangling in the air. They held long poles with sacks tied to the end. I’d seen this a few days ago, and the indifference of the daily passengers had affected me in a powerful way. Now Indira leaned out the window and waved both arms at the rooftop kids.

When I was ten years old my parents bought me an official NFL Electric Football Game that came with plastic players affixed to metal bases. With the flip of a switch the players would move haphazardly up, down, left and right across a vibrating metal table that was painted to look like a football field. I thought about that old game after Indira waved at the rooftop kids. It was like Indira had flipped a switch. Kids swarmed in every direction, trying to find the best possible position to reach Indira. The sheer number of kids was staggering. I counted five, ten, fifteen … and then quit counting.

I glanced at the older and now belligerent lady. Her face twisted with rage.

My reaction was to stand up, to position myself between Indira and anyone that might try to stop her from giving to the rooftop kids. I needn’t have worried. The daily passengers didn’t like what Indira was doing, but they weren’t going to try to stop her.

The train shuddered and its brakes screeched. Above it all I heard kids screaming from the rooftops. The kids had maybe a minute, and they knew it. One good minute in a day with one thousand four hundred and forty minutes they had to survive.

Indira had brought bags full of Pocky sticks—lots and lots of Pocky sticks—which are chocolate-coated cookies, shaped like the sparklers my nieces play with on July Fourth. Maybe they sell them in America. I’m not sure. They’re everywhere in Asia. In Korea they even have Pepero Day—a Valentine’s Day-esque holiday where people exchange the chocolate-coated cookie sticks.

Indira had planned her own version of Pepero Day.

The long poles assaulted the train. The sacks tied at the end of the poles fought each other and some broke off and fell to the ground. Indira and her students did what they could. They filled the sacks they could reach, as fast as possible, with as many cookies as they could fit … but a fast-minute later the earth trembled and the train rumbled relentlessly forward.

Indira said, “No-no-no!”

The kids were even more desperate. They all screamed. Some cried when their poles could no longer reach the train. Indira began throwing the cookies.

“Give me the bag,” I said.

Indira’s shopping bag was still half-full of Pocky sticks. It had just enough weight that I could lean out the window and toss it onto one of the passing rooftops. Which set off a mad dash free-for-all. All the commotion attracted even more kids. Some had been sleeping amongst the rubble. Some had been sleeping in the houses below. Now they were scrambling to get cookies. I slung Maya’s bag onto a passing rooftop as well. Another free-for-all. Gita gave me her bag, but it was too late. The train was moving too fast. The kids were too far away.

Indira said, “Oh my god.”

“What?”

“Look.”

A naked boy was running alongside the train. He’d probably been in bed. And when I say bed, I mean he’d been sleeping somewhere on a dirt floor. Maybe he was five or six years old. He heard the commotion on the rooftops and came running, literally. He was twenty meters behind us, but fading fast. I had Gita’s bag of cookies … but now the boy was forty meters behind us. I thought, it’s too dangerous to drop it beside the tracks. But the boy was running alongside the tracks already. He was at least seventy-five meters behind us when I let the bag fall. He was so far away, but he ran so hard. I leaned out the window until I couldn’t see him anymore. I don’t know if he ever made it to the cookies or not.

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